Experts question 'sinister' White House slush fund for Russia scandal allies


A new White House defense fund will help pay for staffers' legal fees, but only if employees stick to Trump's script?

As a parade of Trump administration officials, family members, and allies continue to get caught up in the ongoing Russia and obstruction of justice scandals, their legal bills are mounting. In response, the White House has set up an ethically dubious defense fund that allows it to potentially reward staffers who defend Trump under questioning and withhold defense funds from people who turn on him.

The emerging slush fund, dubbed the Patriot Legal Expense Fund Trust, represents a deep-pocketed tool the White House can use to influence possible witnesses as special counsel Robert Mueller continues his sprawling investigation.

"The name may suggest something more sinister still, that the cash is for 'patriots' loyal to the president," according to Walter Shaub, former director of the Office of Government Ethics who is now senior director for ethics at the Campaign Legal Center in Washington.

The non-stop scandals that have been a hallmark of Trump's presidency have taken a steep toll on staffers and former campaign associates who have had to lawyer up in response to the many investigations into possible Trump campaign and Trump administration criminality.

Top defense attorneys in Washington, D.C., charge as much as $1,500-per-hour for their legal services.

In response, the White House last November announced it was setting up a fund to help defray some of those costs but insisted money would not be directed to "indictees or current targets."

As Shaub explains, however, the fund is created in a such a way that it gives the fund's manager absolute power to decide who receives donations and who does not.

That means a conflict of interest is built right into the fund.

"Other legal defense funds for government workers — for example, those set up for President Clinton's staffers when he was under investigation — have been structured as trusts for one employee at a time," Shaub writes. "In such trusts, the money collected can only be disbursed to that single beneficiary. It can't be used to favor or shun potential recipients based on what they may or may not reveal to investigators."

Additionally, "No firewall prevents the president from bending the manager's ear about who should or shouldn't receive the fund's largesse," Schaub writes. "Nor is the manager required to seek any guidance from ethics officials to determine if donations come from prohibited sources."

Trump's White House remains an ethical sewer. Now it appears it's trying to buy the loyalty of aides by offering to cover their mounting legal fees — for a price.